Russia-India-China triangle: Promise and Reality

When the foreign ministers of Russia, India and China, the three large economies and emerging powers, met in India's IT city Bangalore around eight months ago for their trilateral meeting, the Indian TV networks were bristling with reports of a widening trust deficit between Beijing and New Delhi over a host of issues. There were high-octane reports of border transgressions by Chinese troops into the Indian territory along a disputed frontier and Beijing blocking a development loan for India at the Manila-based Asian Development Bank. But this attempt to whip up paranoia and mutual suspicion did not succeed in spoiling the bonhomie and a spirited reaffirmation of shared interests that emerged at the ninth trilateral meeting.

Setting their differences on the bilateral track aside, the three countries, comprising 20 per cent of the total global landmass, 39 per cent of the global population and around 25 per cent of global GDP, joined hands in reiterating their call for the creation of a multipolar world order and pushed for a greater presence of emerging and developing economies in international decision-making bodies. This unanimity of views on recasting the global governance architecture was later reaffirmed by the three countries, along with Brazil, at the second BRIC summit in Brasilia in April this year. The ministers agreed that trilateral dialogue in areas such as global economic governance architecture, climate change, trade policy and development cooperation would contribute greatly to global peace and prosperity, said a joint communique. They stressed that “concerted trilateral action against international terrorism, trans-national crime and drug-trafficking would promote stability and all-round development in today's inter-dependent world,” said the communique.

As the meeting was held in the shadow of the global meltdown, the three countries, which have weathered the meltdown relatively well, showed a striking congruence of views on the way forward in these radically uncertain times and designated the G20 as the premier forum for international economic cooperation. They also called for an early implementation of the quantified targets on the governance structure reform of the international financial institutions, speedy shift in IMF quota share of at least 5% to emerging market and developing countries and a significant increase of at least 3% of voting power in the World Bank for developing and transition countries. If sceptics thought the RIC trilateral was just a talk shop, these tangible targets, which were later reaffirmed by the BRIC summit, should remind them of the growing global clout of these countries.

Besides pressing global issues, the trilateral format is also designed to a push mutual cooperation in a wide swathe of economic and developmental areas, including agriculture, disaster mitigation, health and medicine. The trilateral expert group on agricultural cooperation met in New Delhi last year. The next meeting of the trilateral group of experts on health and medicine would be held in Russia later this year. Cashing in on their high rate of economic growth and a new business synergy, the three countries have identified pharmaceuticals, infrastructure, IT and energy have as the focus areas.

As China gets to host the next trilateral meeting of foreign ministers later this year, it would be germane to analyze premises that underpin Russia-India-China format and its potential to influence the international discourse on leading global issues like the UN reforms, terrorism, climate change and the global financial architecture. On the face of it, it’s an unusual getting together of big countries which are seen as rising powers in an increasingly multi-polar world with some shared interests, but which happen to have also conflicting interests and priorities. Zhao Gancheng, Director for South Asian Studies at Shanghai Institute of International Studies, China, poses a question whether trilateral cooperation is sustainable since China, India and Russia are neither strategic allies nor enemies. Trilateral cooperation, Zhao contends, should be seen as a new model of cooperation, seeking common economic benefits but also operating on the basis of a broad consensus about seeking improvement in an imbalanced world order, without challenging the stability of the existing order.

The future of trilateral format will also depend on the trajectory and content of bilateral relationships each country has with the other. For all their efforts to play down sources of their tensions, including a decades-old border dispute, India and China are widely seen as competitors and rivals in an emerging Asian century. India went nuclear in 1998 largely in response to the perceived China threat and this threat perception looms large in media and strategic discourse in India. However, in the past few years Sino-Indian relations have shown greater maturity and stability as the two countries decided to focus on expanding trade and investment by putting complex issues like the border dispute on the backburner. Deft diplomacy has yielded results, with China overtaking the US as the single largest trading partner of India with over $50 billion bilateral trade. There is also a growing realisation that increasing cooperation on global issues could give them greater leverage on international issues where the West tends to impose its views through the West-controlled multilateral institutions. The understanding between India and China, after all, rescued the climate change negotiations at the UN conference at Copenhagen in December last year.

Sino-Russian relations, too, are not entirely devoid of friction. “Russia has reasons to worry about China’s rising profile in East and North-East Asia, about Chinese immigrants overrunning the Russian Far East, and about China’s economy dwarfing its own,” says Harsh V. Pant, a lecturer at King’s College London. However, increasing trade and investment and a common resentment of the US unipolar power will ensure that these differences don’t go out of hand. Vladimir Putin, then Russian president and now prime minister, is a strong votary of trilateral cooperation and he forcefully articulated it when Chinese President Hu Jintao visited Russia in March 2007. In fact, the Russia-China joint declaration called for expanding trilateral cooperation with India as such interaction "enhances mutually beneficial economic cooperation among the three nations, strengthens their coordination in facing new challenges and threats, especially that of international terrorism and contributes to the cause of promoting peace and stability in Asia and throughout the world."

The improving bilateral relations of India, Russia and China with each other, therefore, will enhance the clout of RIC in global affairs and provide them yet another platform to meet and iron out their differences.

Terrorism, which threatens people of the three countries, is an important area where trilateral coordination and action can make a world of difference. At their last meeting in Bangalore, the three countries joined hands in combating terrorism emanating from Pakistan and Afghanistan to provide stability to the region and rejected selective approaches and double standards in countering terrorism.

Energy is another key area. Russia is a dominant supplier of oil and gas; China and India are energy deficit, but significant suppliers of manufactured products and services. “Energy is an obvious area of mutually beneficial cooperation if the three countries are willing to think creatively and boldly,” suggests Rajiv Sikri, a former secretary in India’s external affairs ministry.
The long-range significance of the trilateral format, which is now being reinforced by other groupings like BRIC and SCO where India may be inducted as a full-fledged member in the near future, lies in their success in giving an added impetus to the ongoing push towards a diffusion of global power. “The burgeoning trilateral consultations and cooperation constitute the most serious and credible endeavour to craft a multi-polar world,” writes Sikri. For Russia, the driving force behind the trilateral since the concept was first mooted by former Russian premier Yevgeny Primakov in 1998, the trilateral format fits in with the overarching goal of its post-Cold War foreign policy that seeks to create a genuinely balanced and stable multi-polar world. If China can shed its calculated ambivalence towards India’s bid for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council and come out unequivocally in support of New Delhi, the trilateral’s collective clout in international affairs will grow even further.

While it is not a strategic alliance yet, as all three countries have been at pains to point out in their joint declarations that it is not directed against any third country, a euphemism for the US, Russia, China and India should widen the ambit of trilateral cooperation in areas that directly impact the lives of people in the three countries. If the three key countries of an emerging multi-polar world can overcome their mutual differences and blend their strengths and capacities, they can bring an alternative worldview to the dominant West-dictated discourse on key global challenges of the 21st century. But this may take some time to come to fruition.

Manish Chand, Senior Editor with IANS, is New Delhi-based writer on international issues

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